Alone At The Audience Engagement Event

February 9th, 2015 § 10 comments

empty restaurant b&wWhen I first started going to theatre in my teens, I loved attending post-performance discussions and special seminars and panels about plays. They were my education, my chance to learn from artists about how and why they did what they did. I was so fond of the form, that I began moderating these kinds of talks at my college performing arts center when I was only 19, leading off with JoAnne Akalaitis and Athol Fugard in my first year. Once I began working at theatres, I’d pitch in when a literary manager or dramaturg was overcommitted, and translated events like this into the new form called podcasting in 2004, ultimately hosting or co-hosting 325 artist conversations under the banner of “Downstage Center.” This coming weekend, I’ll travel to Philadelphia to do a post-performance chat with Terrence McNally on Sunday and a full evening with Bill Irwin the next night.

So it probably won’t surprise you when I say that, as a result of my access, I tend not to go to many pre- and post-show events anymore. I’m still completely committed to their value, which is why I happily moderate them when invited. But for me, when I am merely an audience member, the sense of discovery is not what it used to be. The fact is, they’re not geared for me and other working professionals. They’re designed for the audience at large, those who rarely if ever get to walk through theatre doors marked “staff only” or have their name on a list at the stage door.

So I was a bit surprised at my own reaction recently when a paper flyer inserted into a program at a show I was seeing proved uncharacteristically effective on me. It wasn’t anything special, but it invited the audience to gather at a nearby restaurant, just one block away, after the performance to talk about the show, saying such conversation was a feature whenever the play is performed. The fact that it was a minute’s walk away made sense: the theatre’s lobby is too small for any events and if the audience had been invited to stay in their seats, there would have been a formality to the proceedings, and obviously the theatre was seeking something less structured.

I don’t know why this particular invitation appealed to me. Perhaps it was because I was attending alone and I thought I might want to at least listen to what others thought afterwards, even if I chose to hang back at the fringes. I tucked the flyer back into the program and figured I’d make up my mind after the performance.

The show ran less than two hours. I had nowhere particular I had to be and I was certainly intrigued and troubled by the play. So I gathered my things, I stopped in the theatre’s rest room, I lingered on the sidewalk to overhear what other patrons were saying as they exited. Finally, I walked to the designated site.

Entering, I wondered at first if the restaurant was closed, though I spotted two tables at the back with patrons. The entire front section, a mix of tables and surprisingly open space by the bar was empty, save for some solicitous restaurant workers who exhorted me to sit. They generously reminded me that my ticket would afford me a small discount off any order. “I’m going to see if others come to talk,” I said, “Let me wait until others get here.”

No one else came.

I waited for 15 minutes, and not a single customer of any kind entered the restaurant, let alone fellow theatregoers. No staff from the theatre turned up either, and I stood there awkwardly, not wanting to take a table and then disappoint a server when I failed to order, my interest in hearing about or discussing the play waning as I pondered the reasons for my solitude.

Admittedly, the cast for the show was small, they were in previews and it was a two show day, so it was unreasonable to expect any of the actors to appear. Maybe after a few evening performances they might stop by, but not today. The show was not a premiere, the press was already coming (so the show was no doubt frozen), and the production team may have all moved on to their next ventures, or were simply enjoying some deserved time off. But despite a venue, admittedly a small one, which was full for the performance, I was the only person who chose to answer the invitation. I had decided, to use a buzzword, to “engage” – and no one else who had shared the prior couple of hours with me saw fit to do the same.

I was so disconcerted, that following my 15 minute wait, I retraced my walk from the theatre, eyeing each passerby to see whether they held a program, or the telltale colored paper flyer. I kept looking back over my shoulder for as long as I could to see if anyone was entering the restaurant. I would have doubled back. When I got to the theatre, the sidewalk was clear, and only two couples remained in the small lobby. So I went home and I have yet to discuss the play with anyone, or hear it discussed.

I have purposely avoided saying the name of the play and the theatre because I don’t write to blame either or both for my experience. Perhaps it was a fluke, and crowds have gathered at every other performance. I appreciated the effort to engage me, even if it left me feeling like a child who realized no one was coming to his birthday party, or a suitor stood up by a blind date, foolish and alone. I would have felt worse, actually, if just one other person had shown up, since then I would have been forced to talk, not merely to observe, to stave off their potential disappointment.

Maybe once the audience was released from the building, the sense of community engendered by a shared experience completely dissipated. Maybe the relatively comfortable weather after a cold snap was too inviting to miss. Maybe the 20 to 25 college-aged students who appeared to be there as a group would take up the play in class and consequently saw no need to discuss it sooner. There were plenty of variables, and unless I choose to visit that restaurant after a number of performances, I’ll never be able to analyze what contributed to my experience.

Because I am not the average audience member, this episode was ultimately a reminder about how difficult it can be to engage an audience beyond the time they spend seeing a show. I wonder: how many newsletters and program notes have I written or edited that have gone unread, how many people have left partway through talks I’ve moderated because of my failings rather than other commitments, how many people have actually listened to the end of every podcast? For all the efforts towards deepening the experience, about continuing the conversation, about creating a context for artistic work, what is the alchemy of engagement, and is it different not only for every theatre, but for every play? Or perhaps, sometimes, is it that a play is simply enough and we would all rather be alone in our thoughts?

For this play, at this theatre, at that performance, I will never know. But I’ll always wonder exactly why I was left unengaged and contemplate how I and others can do better.

*   *   *

It is not my intent to criticize or embarrass the theatre or show discussed above by naming them. In that spirit, comments attempting to do so will be deleted, but I welcome your comments on what I experienced and how you and others might engage audiences – or what engages you.


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  • I’m surprised no one from the theatre showed up, or was already stationed there to greet anyone who decided to make the walk.

    But this is a good lesson in audience engagement: it takes more than putting a single slip of paper inside a program. It takes a human connection.

  • Theater Feedback

    Excellent piece, Howard! We can relate. You are correct to not name names, since it is a systemic phenomenon, not an isolated experience. And that’s across the arts in NYC (performance, visual, etc.). The abundance of art experiences (both passive & active) creates a kind of audience fatigue that under-resourced organizations are constantly struggling to overcome. As a result, the circle of active engagement gets tighter and narrower among, what feel like, competing “tribes.” This inward intensity can produce great art or obscurity (or both). But for the general public, NYC’s embarrassment of riches leads to a general attitude of taking art for granted. In communities of scarcity, there is far more appetite for engagement.

    • Michael

      I would have to disagree with the assertion in reguards to “communities of scarcity”. In my community, their are 4 community theatres and the ‘tribe’ mentally is beyond rampant. I would argue the reason for this feeling of ‘us vs. them’ has more to do with funding (or in this case lack there of) than real community involvement failers.

      • Theater Feedback

        Michael, what audience engagement strategies seem to be working in Atlanta? Do you see any collaboration among organizations to develop audiences for theater, music, visual art, or across the arts? Thanks to Howard for stimulating the conversation!

        • Theater Feedback

          …and just to be clear, Michael, by “communities of scarcity” I mean communities with few/fewer “art experiences” for the public to engage. That may (but doesn’t always) correlate with a scarcity of funding or potential funders…public awareness & appreciation of art has to cultivated, like everything else–it’s education, communication, access, all of that “development stuff.” But in communities with an abundance of art experiences, the public can be lulled into varying states of complacency, apathy, passivity, disdain…all the hallmarks of taking something for granted. If Howard’s cocktail event was the only thing happening in town, or even on that one block of the theater world, it would have been jam-packed. – John, Theater Feedback

  • crazydanny

    This has happened to me as well. During previews sometimes they stay behind for notes. The insert has had the wrong address. They took a look inside and didn’t see anyone, so they didn’t go in. The insert was from a previous performance. The manager forgot to tell the cast and left early. The audience held onto them in the theater or their families or friends corralled them.

    You are not alone. I do not expect perfection in a stage production nor in life. There was one time a full house with 1 second to curtain and a pipe burst flooding the theater! Cast, crew and audience outside with nothing to discuss.

  • Janine

    Our theatre company regularly does a few different audience engagement events. Some of them are during a weekday morning, some are discussions right before a performance and some are discussions right after a performance. The weekday discussions are well attended, but the crowd that attends them is the same exact crowd of people every time. We have had a great deal of success with the pre-show discussions. Those dates are flagged in our ticketing system, prompting the box office associate to remind the patron of the discussion when tickets are purchased. We just open the house about 30 minutes early on those days. Post show discussions are the hardest to make a go of. In our market, which is Richmond VA, I think most people are just ready to go home at 10 or 11pm.

  • Willy Loman

    See In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was
    respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and
    dried and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or
    personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me any more!

    – Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

    Art Changes.

    Twitter has replaced the Theater of the Round, where Groundlings and Aristocrats once congregated, now Improv Groundlings shout the dirtiest Aristocrats jokes they have to an empty theater down Melrose blvd. We don’t wish to take the time to fill those empty seats, but are bewildered to hear whenever SNL steals their material, & continue to sit down & stream the controversy instead, maybe watching another SNL sketch in memory of, “The Good Years”. Do you see, Man! It is, “We” who are always blaming and replacing our memories with complacency.

    Even your retreat, Howard, leaves a little prematurely with little to no empathy towards the Theater’s story; What happened to the Players? Was it completely up to the Theater to ask questions, to continue participation, or since they requested of the Audience, it could possibly leave the question up to the Audience to ask of them: When no one showed up, and when you were the only one of two people to understand, then who’s Question was it?

    The late Mitch Hedberg explains this wonderfully:

    “When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it’s busy they start a
    waiting list. They start calling out names, they say “Dufresne, party of
    two. Dufresne, party of two.” And if no one answers they’ll say their
    name again. “Dufresne, party of two, Dufresne, party of two.” But then
    if no one answers they’ll just go right on to the next name. “Bush,
    party of three.” Yeah, what happened to the Dufresnes? No one seems to
    give a shit. Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing!”

    Maybe Evolution is an inevitability. Maybe immediacy and complacency is becoming the Cultural staple of this economically depressing Country. I originally read your story & thought to myself, “Why didn’t he decide to share Beer or Tea with the Staff? Why wander down silent streets waiting for someone to share something with him at last? Why should I even reply asking him why didn’t he ask?” And immediately found myself in your shoes… alone and with questions. Not Great Expectations, not any real sense of dedication to another Human Being, & not even to find a real sense of Meaning. I quoted Willy Loman because I found myself in his worn out shoes, confused as to why I refused what little energy in me to reply to your Story… and then decided to deny my own immediate complacency. To strive through digital space to the two empty tables in the past, replied back just so that I can present you with a question with as equally worn of soles and soul,

    “Why don’t you Ask?”

    P.S. If you don’t write about your occurrence and make it into a One Man Play, expect the West Coast Premiere by next Year.

  • AnnaCaroline

    I wonder if we need to start thinking about audience engagement LESS as a social activity, and leave it in the hands of the audience members to engage themselves. As an administrator and an audience member, I’m rarely inclined to talk about a show in a large group with people I don’t know but avidly discuss with inner circles. I think most “book club-esque” questions come off as dippy, but share some thoughtful questions, relevant articles or videos, recommend tie-in materials… I’m more likely to bring it up over dinner with friends and discuss the show in terms of its themes and social, political, historical, etc. context. I don’t really want to stay after a show on a work night and I definitely don’t want to be thrust into a socially awkward situation in the corner of a restaurant. I guess, in a nutshell, we need to think about the ACTUAL GOAL of audience engagement and whether or not we’re really using the tools we have to the best of our abilities and with the actual needs and wants of the audience in mind.

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